Monday, November 19, 2007

The rights of children

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.
The rights of children
Dan Sperber
Nov 6, 2007 17:51 UT

When Daniel Dennett wrote:
As long as parents don’t teach their children anything that is likely to close their minds -- through fear or hatred or by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world) then they may teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like,”
he must have done so tongue in cheek for he well knows that, with few exceptions—one of them being the kind of religiosity (rather than religion proper) that Roberta Monticelli is evoking in this debate—,
religions prohibit layperson and in particular children accessing texts or participating in meetings that are seen as sinful, blasphemous, or in one way or another abominable.

Dennett’s “modest proposal” of “a mandatory curriculum on world religion” is exactly something that most denominations would never accept, and, in proposing it, his goal must be demonstrative rather than genuinely practical. Thinking of the very feasibility of his proposal reminds the reader that the most obdurate opponents of any given religion are defenders of other religions, and that the current alliance of religious authorities in democratic countries in defence of an inflated view of religious freedom is a tactical convergence faute de mieux.

In almost all historical circumstances where instituted religions had a chance to work at eliminating or at least curtailing the freedom of other religions, they have relentlessly done so
(exceptions are provided by cults that do not claim to be the whole of religion and that therefore can co-exist in a kind of market competition as in Ancient Rome or today’s Japan).

Which take us to the fundamental issue raised by Thomas Nagel, that of the “protection of individual freedom [of] children inside the family.” I would like to look at the issue from a point of view that denies that there is some special religious freedom over and above that which religions enjoy in the name of freedom of thought, of expression, of assembly, and of association.

A clear distinction must be made here between issues of morality and issues of rights. As Dawkins likes to point out, if Marxist or monetarist parents talked about their children as Marxist or monetarist children, we would find this abusive, yet even secularists talk about Jewish, Catholic and Muslim children. Dawkins suggest that we equally object, and I agree, in particular because these categorisations go together with a form of education that aims at making them retroactively appropriate. The objection however seems to me to be more a matter of ethics than a matter of rights. Moreover, the believers’ mistake that has morally objectionable consequences is itself not moral but cognitive.

They typically believe that it is their moral duty to impose as soon as possible their religious views on their children so as to ensure their salvation,
while it is easier for Marxist and even more so monetarist parents to show greater respect for their children's freedom of opinion since they do not see their own beliefs as providing individual salvation.

With the kind of family structures found in our societies (which of course could themselves be reconsidered, but this is another issue), the degree of long-term involvement and responsibility of parents with each of their children is on the whole much greater than that of schools, social services, and other public agencies. Leaving to parents a very wide range of decisions regarding the upbringing of their children may not be wonderful but it is a least evil. Parents often err in prudential, educational, moral, or aesthetic matters, but except in very clear cases of abuse, individual and institutions external to the family cannot be counted on to exert better judgement and even less to provide children with the benefits of this better judgement.

Parents who inculcate their children with silly, immoral, offensive, or stultifying views are to be blamed, but not punished or coerced to do better.
From this follows that
religious upbringing in the family should be tolerated, even if, in many ways, in particular because of its insistence on moulding children from an early age, it is a particularly objectionable form of abuse.

On the other hand, it is generally agreed, rightly so, I believe, that it is a matter of rights that all children be taught a common curriculum by teachers whose competence is publicly ascertained, whether or not the parents agree with the content of this curriculum or with methods of ascertainment. When sending their children to school, parents relinquish some of their responsibility and authority to the school not only in educational matter, but also in matters of behaviour, dress code, and so on. Everybody would agree that parents who keep a nudist home cannot demand that their children be nude at school, that children should not be allowed to advertise whatever opinion they or their parents hold dear on their t-shirts (“Heil Hitler!” for instance), and that they should abide by common rules that should be decided for the common good. Of course, school regulations are open to discussion. Effort to accommodate special preferences should be considered, but preferences do not give rights. In these discussions, parents have a say both as citizen and as directly interested parties and people can defend whatever views they hold. However, the fact that these views are religious ones should not give them any special weight.

So to go back to the well-publicised issue of the wearing of ostensible religious symbol in French public school, it is quite possible to disagree regarding the decision to ban them which was finally made. It is possible to be unimpressed with the fact that this decision has basically solved what had become a major social problem without creating widespread and lasting resentment among the groups concerned, Muslims in particular. On the other hand, I find it hard to disagree with the decision on principle, as if it were simply a matter of freedom of expression, unless one would defend also the right of members of all opinion groups, whether religious or not, to advertise their membership by wearing as they see fit a sartorial symbol of it, for instance a swastika or confederate flag). Some might object to my examples and say: let’s ban symbols that are associated with the idea that one group is superior to others and might be entitled to special rights or even worse to rights over other groups, but then many religious groups are quite explicit in arguing exactly this about themselves. Should symbols of belonging to such religious groups be banned? Or, should they be accepted because they are religious? We are back to the fundamental question I raised in an earlier intervention: Should we think of religious freedom as deserving special protection or rights? I believe not and have not seen any non-question-begging argument that goes the other way.

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